“A robbery?” Whitaker said, surprised.
“Yep. The explosion was to hide any trace of it, most likely. And it’s not like you can go out and buy two-hundred pounds of C4. The inconsistent blast radius, plus the fact that multiple guys are involved in kidnapping Julie, all point to it, unless we go with the abduction being a coincidence.”
“No, we don’t. But that doesn’t let Samar off the hook. He could have been in on the crew stealing the explosives.”
“Sure, but then why kill Julie? What possible reason could Samar have for holding her alive for four or five days and then killing her just before or just after he blew up the armory? None of that makes sense.”
“Maybe she learned of the plan?” Whitaker said in a voice that suggested even she didn’t believe it.
“But why did guys jump her in a parking lot at night. It was a good setup, sure, but they could have been seen. That’s a hell of a lot riskier than Samar just calling her up on the phone and asking her to come over. And it’s not like he needed to keep his phone records clean. With his code being used, he was always going to be a suspect.”
“Ok, but then why did he use his code.”
“I have a thought, just bear with me. Maybe these guys started planning the robbery, but couldn’t figure out how to get in the door without getting caught. I mean, this is a building with trained soldiers and a bunch of weapons and ammo. Not exactly an easy score. So they find out one of the kids on the night shift has this coed girlfriend, snatch her up and then say ‘do this for us, or the girl gets it.’ Afterwards, they get rid of the evidence.”
“I don’t know.”
“I get that I have literally no evidence to back that theory up, but it’s the only thing I’ve got that fits all the facts. I mean, Samar loves this country! Everyone that knows him says no way did he betray his oath. But he’s this young kid, raised by a single woman, with this pretty girl friend who apparently was crazy for him. It’s not a stretch to say he made the wrong call and agreed if he thought he could get her out alive.”
“Maybe, but now we have to do the hard part, and actually get evidence. If you think I’m a hard sell, Dorset will need someone standing in front of him signing a confession before he buys into any of this.”
“You know what really worries me?”
“If I’m right, someone is out there was willing to kidnap and murder a young girl, blow up a Army instillation and kill multiple servicemen, all to get a truck load of military grade high explosives. It was an amazingly risky operation that had a mountain of fail points all along the way.”
“What are they planning to hit, that’s worth all that risk?”
“Shit!” Whitaker said, looking down as she considered the ramifications.
“So, let’s go to the AC place. The next link in the chain is the guys who grabbed her.”
“All right,” she said and got up to go back to her room.
Taylor took one last moment to appreciate her in short shorts and a tight t-shirt before she disappeared out the door.
After ten minutes the buttoned up Whitaker in a pants suit and tasteful makeup appeared. As they walked towards the car, she grabbed him by the elbow, stopping him.
“About last night,” she started to say.
“I get it. You were just blowing off steam, and having some fun. We’re good.”
“Ok. Good,” she said, and then punched him hard in the chest. “And stop telling people to call me Lola.”
“Oof!” he said, half from the impact and half in exaggeration. “Sure thing, Princess.”
She gave him a glare, but smiled as she turned away and headed to the SUV.
They made one stop on the way to the AC shop, at a small electronics retailer. After flashing her badge, Whitaker talked the kid behind the counter into pulling some items they had for sale that allowed users to digitize VHS tapes, and had them print out a snap shot of the two men from the van. Even so, when they arrived at the AC business, they found its doors locked tight and a sign indicating that it wouldn’t open for almost an hour.
Looking in the shops windows, Taylor couldn’t see any people or lights. That wasn’t terribly surprising considering it was more than an hour before the business would normally open. In the parking lot sat two vans that matched up with what they had seen on the surveillance tape, including the logo as it had been described to them and each with a number on the back right door. Neither of these van’s numbers matched the one from the tape, however.
Taylor checked the paint on those numbers, but both seemed weathered enough that he seriously doubted if either had their number changed any time recently. Both vehicles were locked, but looking in he could see they shared a similar layout, with an open back area easily accessible from the driver’s seat, with a row of drawers and a very narrow work bench on one side of the van’s cargo area. It wouldn’t have been hard for them to keep Julie hidden while they’d taken her to wherever she was held prior to her death.
While Taylor was poking around the trucks, a younger man walked up wearing a button up shirt with the same logo over the pocket.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Sir, I’m Agent Whitaker with the FBI. Do these men look familiar to you?” Whitaker asked, holding up her badge in one hand and a print out of the surveillance tape in the other.
“It’s a little blurry, but I’m pretty sure that’s Willie on the left. No idea who the other guy is.”
“William, ma’am. William Mullins. He’s a technician, here. That picture kinda looks like him, and he has this big tattoo on his arm that is where that dark spot is on the person in the picture. I’m not a hundred percent sure, of course; but if I had to guess, it’s Willie.”
“What’s the tattoo of?” Whitaker asked.
“A big snake that’s curled up at the bottom and the top part is sitting up. You’ve probably seen it before. It’s off that yellow flag you sometimes see at protests and stuff on TV.”
“The one that says ‘Don’t tread on me’?” Taylor asked.
“That’s the one. The tattoo is just the snake, though. No words or anything.”
“Has Mullins worked here long?”
“I’m not sure. I got hired about a year ago, and he already worked here then.”
“Have you seen him recently?”
“No, but he had some kind of big install job out of town. He’s been gone for almost two weeks.”
A car pulled into the parking lot and parked next to the vans.
“That’s Mr. Brooks. He owns the place,” the younger man said.
The man got out of his car and walked over to them.
“Can I help you folks?” the man in his forties said as he walked up.
“They’re with the FBI, Art. They were asking questions about Willie,” the younger employee said, probably thinking he was being helpful.
“Did something happen to him?” Brooks asked, concerned.
“No. We just had a couple of questions for him.”
“Well, he’s been in Oklahoma for two weeks, finishing a big contract.”
“Have you talked to him in that time?”
“A couple of times. He knows his job; so, normally I just leave him to it, so he can finish and get back.”
“And he’s still there?”
“As far as I know.”
“Do you have a number for him?”
“Sure, I have it in the office.”
They followed Mullins around to the front of the store, and waited while he unlocked the shop. He was a little rattled, which most people are when the FBI shows up asking questions, and started to pull the door closed behind him. Taylor reached out and stopped the door from shutting.
Brooks gave a nervous chuckle and held the door open for Whitaker and Taylor to follow him into the shop. He headed back to an office along the back wall and, after flicking on the lights, he pulled a binder off a shelf and flipped it open.
Looking over his shoulder, Taylor watched as he flipped through sections in the binder, each with a different employee’s name. He got Mullins name and opened the page to a sheet that had phone number and address on it, which Whitaker copied down.
“If you hear from Mullins, please have him call me,” Whitaker said, handing him one of her cards.
“What next?” Taylor asked as they left the store.
“I’ll call in a BOLO on Williams. Let’s go over to his home, just in case he’s there.”
“You don’t want to call him?”
“Not yet. I don’t want to spook him into running.”
They got into the SUV and, after consulting Whitaker’s GPS, drove a few blocks to a small apartment complex. Finding his apartment, Whitaker parked the car out front.
“So how do we do this?” Taylor said, as Whitaker walked around to his side of the car, stepping up onto the curb she had parked next to.
“Well, if he’s not home, we could try for a warrant, but there’s a good chance word would get back to Dorset. The other choice is to take the tape and ID to the Sheriff, and see if he’d let us piggy back on his investigation. Of course, he might be pissed we haven’t turned over the tape already, and shut us out.”
“Man, doing things legally is a pain in the...”
Taylor was interrupted by the sound of squealing tires. A dirty green truck accelerated towards them at a high rate of speed. That alone would have been notable, but what made it really concerning, was the two men on the back of the truck who were both holding assault style weapons.
Taylor grabbed Whitaker around the waist and pulled both of them to the ground, interposing the black SUV between them and the truck. Almost as soon as they hit the ground, the staccato crack-crack-crack sound of semi-automatic rifle fire filled the air, followed by the thunk and crunching sounds of bullets impacting on their improvised cover.
Lying mostly on top of Whitaker, Taylor saw a bullet impact on the crevasse that joined the curb they were laying on and the road a few inches lower. Taylor recognized a fairly low speed impact, and experience told him it was most likely a ricochet hitting the curb, making it slow enough to not bounce further once it hit the cement, but rather dig into the concrete.
Taylor felt a burning sensation as sharp chips of concrete were sent spraying up from the impact, peppering the side of his neck.
The entire barrage lasted mere seconds, and then stopped as the truck passed beyond them and sped down the street. Taylor rolled off Whitaker and both were up in a flash, weapons in their hands ready to return fire. Unfortunately the truck was turning onto a side street and neither had a shot at their assailants.
Whitaker ran around the vehicle, only to skid to a stop. Taylor followed behind her and saw what she saw. The SUV was riddled with bullets and even as they looked at the damage, smoke started billowing from under the vehicle’s hood.
“Shit,” She said, pulling out her phone. “I’ve gotta call this in.”
She leaned against her car and started dialing a number. Taylor walked away and headed towards the apartment while she was on the phone. Trying the door, he was surprised to find it unlocked. Looking back and confirming that Whitaker was otherwise occupied, he pushed the door open and walked in.
The apartment was a tiny one-bedroom, but seemed generally fairly clean. The first thing he noticed was the lights were all on. The second thing that drew Taylor’s eye was the small table next to the kitchenette, where a single plate sat with a fork perched on its edge. Walking over, Taylor held his hand over the rice and stew-meat that filled the plate, and felt heat radiating off it. In the kitchenette he found a pot with more of the same food that was on the plate, the sides still too hot to touch.
“What the hell are you doing,” Whitaker said from the doorway behind him.
“The door was open,” he said.
“I don’t give a shit. We don’t have a warrant. Anything you find in here now will be inadmissible, later. You want to let Julie’s killer walk on a technicality? Get out of there, right now!”
“Sorry,” Taylor said as he walked out the door and Whitaker shut it behind them.
“Did you touch anything?”
“I sure as hell hope not. How will you feel if he skates.”
“I get it. Sorry. But...”
“Did you notice all the lights were on?”
“They were like that when I walked in. Food was on the table, still hot. He high tailed it out of there only a few minutes ago. Someone tipped him off.”
“I think the guys in the pickup truck could have told you that.”
“They could have been following us.”
Whitaker shook her head, “I would have noticed it by now. Also, we were all over town yesterday, we were at the hotel last night. Why pick this moment to take a shot at us?”
“‘Cause we were going to look into Mullins’ activities.”
“Bingo. If I had to guess, I’d say someone tipped him off we were coming.”
A squad car, lights wailing tore around a corner and slammed to a stop right in front of Whitaker’s car. The deputy they had met at the pond hopped out.
“Shit, we got a call of a gun battle happening over here,” he said, slowing down when he recognized Whitaker and Taylor. “Didn’t expect to find you folks.”
“I just called it in. Three men in a pickup, one driving, two in the bed with assault rifles. They took some shots at us and then hauled ass,” Whitaker said.
“Your car’s shot to shit.”
“Yeah, I saw that. That’s why I called it in, instead of chasing them down myself.”
“You’re bleeding,” the deputy said, looking at Taylor.
He put his hand up and felt the slick blood coming off the cuts running up his neck.
“It’s not bad,” Taylor said, after feeling around for a second.
“Call a bus anyway, Deputy,” Whitaker said.
“Sure thing,” he said, stepping away and reaching for the small radio mic at his shoulder.
After a minute he returned, saying, “It’s on the way. Sheriff’s headed down here, too.”
“Shit,” Whitaker said.
“What were you folks doing here?”
“Looking into the Julie Jones case,” Taylor admitted.
“I heard that we were keeping jurisdiction on that,” he said.
“You are,” Whitaker said, shooting a side-eye glare at Taylor. “We were just looking around since we think her death may be peripheral to a case we’re working on.”
“Well, you’ll probably have to explain that to Sheriff Goodman.”
Whitaker and Taylor looked at each other with concerned expressions.
“Don’t worry, he’s a fair man,” the deputy said.
They let the conversation fall off as the deputy walked around their vehicle, whistling to himself as he looked at all the bullet impacts along the driver’s side. Taylor had to admit, it was notable. Not that the shooting had been difficult. The truck had slowed as it passed them, an SUV is a pretty big target, and the shooters were no more than five feet away the entire time they were firing.
Taylor actually considered either this to be a warning for them to back off, which seemed like a bad idea since he wouldn’t think that sort of thing would work on any Federal agent; or they just aimed at the SUV and not the two people who were supposedly their targets. If that was the case, it was a waste of bullets. Since he and Whitaker were already outside the SUV when the shooting started, he could think of a dozen better options that would have had a better chance of killing them than just blazing away at the side of a vehicle.
The sound of more sirens could be heard as a fire department ambulance pulled up, followed by a second cruiser. A man Taylor didn’t recognize got out of the cruiser and walked up to them, almost simultaneously with the medics. He waved the medics to go first, and they led Taylor to the bumper of the ambulance.
“Agent Whitaker?” he said as he stopped next to where Whitaker was sitting.
“Yeah. You Sheriff Goodman?” she asked.
“I am. Can you explain to me what the hell is going on here?”